Fiction Reviews

The Library of the Dead

(2021) T. L. Huchu, Tor, £14.99, hrdbk, 330pp, ISBN 978-1-529-03945-0


Ropa Moyo can talk to ghosts, anchoring them to this realm through the music played on her mbira, a kind of Zimbabwean thumb piano, which she inherited from her granddad. They come to her so she can pass on messages to those left behind – for a fee of course. Most of the time these requests and laments are straightforward – the location of a will, a promise to stop haunting if their body is reburied – but one night, Ropa encounters the ghost of a mother, worried about the son left behind, who alerts her to a terrible evil stalking the children of the city.

The city is Edinburgh, situated in some dystopian, ‘post-catastrophe’ future, where the call and reply of ‘God save the King’ and ‘Long may He reign’ is obligatory and the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ yawns like an abyss. Ropa is most definitely on the side of the have-nots, living with her gran and kid sister in a caravan in a muddy field and barely able to pay the rent with what little money she makes. As quick with a sarcastic put-down as she is with her catapult, what lifts her character above the familiar mould of ‘sparky teenage heroine’ are the quality of her observations, which are typically insightful and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, despite her circumstances. And of course, after a little prodding from her gran, she agrees to help the ghost mother by rescuing her son and stopping whatever’s happening to the children.

But of course, Ropa can’t do this alone and the first of her sidekicks (unless you include her faithful fox who lives under the caravan) is her old schoolfriend Jomo, who just happens to work in the library of the title. Located underground this is basically a repository of magical lore and it is here that Ropa meets her second companion-at-arms, wheelchair-bound Priya who is not only comfortably well-off and can therefore stake Ropa a decent meal or two but is also a useful guide to the ins and outs of spell casting. The underlying principle here is thermodynamics with the magician essentially just pushing entropy along and it’s nice to see not only a tip of the hat to the likes of Einstein but also some consideration of scientific methodology, as in a rough-and-ready outline of the differences between deduction, induction and abduction!

With Ropa leading the way the trio crack open the mystery and save the day, but not, of course, before they’ve encountered multiple thrills and spills (in one episode, literally) and some moments of genuine horror along the way. The balance between action and more reflective passages is nicely handled as are the relationships between Ropa, her gran and little sister. To say she is fiercely protective would be an understatement but despite ticking many of the standard ‘female hero’ boxes, Ropa is a hugely engaging character who drives the plot along, with the help of the library and its magical contents as an obvious device, of course. Overall, the writing is as sharp as she is and as much as I hate to use that old ‘page-turner’ cliché, this honestly was a book that, outside of work, meals and urgent family demands, I just could not put down!

Steven French


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